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We risk creating the felons of the future: Mothers & Prison, final leading article

2012 September 22

Independent Leading article

Two clear messages have emerged from the major investigation which this newspaper has conducted into the state of women’s prisons. The first is that as a nation we jail far too many women for minor offences. They would be much better dealt with in other ways. The second is that imprisoning so many mothers is doing such harm to their children – around 17,000 of them every year, all innocent of any crime – that we are unwittingly creating an even larger generation of criminals to fill our jails in the decades to come. A third of prisoners’ children develop mental health difficulties. Two thirds of the boys go on to commit a crime themselves.
There are two ways to break this vicious circle. The first is unrealistically expensive at a time of economic austerity. It is to close several of our big women’s prisons and replace them with more smaller units in which the unproductive punishment regimes of our present system can be replaced by an approach which combines punishment with serious and effective rehabilitative strategies. When the public purse can afford it this is the strategy which should be pursued.
In the shorter term there is a parallel approach which will seriously reduce the size of a female prison population now double what it was in 1990. As we have reported there now exists a network of women’s centres which run programmes for non-violent offenders offering drug and alcohol treatment, anger management and sessions to develop skills to tackle parenting, debt, job and housing problems. They are cutting rates of re-offending to as low as 10 per cent. By contrast a whopping 62 per cent of women leave prison and commit another crime within 12 months.
Such punishment in the community is not a soft option, as our reports have shown. It needs to be massively extended. To do so will also save the Treasury huge amounts; to keep a woman in prison costs £56,000 a year; punishment in the community costs less than a quarter of that.
There are a host of other measures we set out today (on pages x & y) to improve the way courts, prisons, probation services, local authorities, schools and Government ministers exercise a proper duty of care to these children. If we do not act we are abandoning a lost generation of children who are effectively orphaned by our criminal justice system.

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